How to Include Volunteers Into Your Emergency and Disaster Preparedness Plans

Incorporating Emergency and Disaster Response Volunteers into Preparedness Plans

Voluntary organizations are often on the front lines following a disaster; yet mobilizing a substantial surge in volunteer activity can be challenging. The key to success? Planning. The disaster preparedness plan is instrumental in effectively aiding recovery efforts. Disaster relief preparedness involves adequate training, constructive communication, and clearly defined roles. We have outlined some disaster management strategies to prepare for a disaster and mobilize your disaster response volunteer base. 


The Roles Volunteers Play in Disaster and Emergency Management

Volunteers are a critical component of a community’s disaster response capacity; they boost your response efforts and can assist in a variety of roles. Often disaster response volunteers will serve functions that require less advanced technical training, allowing professionals to focus on carrying out specialized response jobs. While many volunteers already possess valuable skills, you can also consider providing specialized disaster relief volunteer training. This ensures your ability to respond to any emergency scenario. 

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), there are generally four classifications of emergency and disaster response volunteers with varying levels of experience and training: 

Affiliated volunteers

Affiliated volunteers are attached to recognized volunteer agencies that provide emergency services to the community. Affiliated volunteers are trained for disaster response. These volunteer agencies will have a mechanism in place for deploying affiliated volunteers in an emergency. 

Spontaneous volunteers

These are people who volunteer in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. Spontaneous volunteers may be skilled or unskilled. The mobilization of spontaneous volunteers requires considerable planning and coordination (especially when present in large numbers) because their services are required promptly after an unforeseen circumstance. A disaster volunteer management software like ReDI will help you track and manage spontaneous volunteers to better assist when an unforeseen disaster occurs. 

Professional volunteers

These volunteers have licenses, professional qualifications, or specialized skills that can be used during or following an emergency. Professional volunteers may include medical service providers like physicians, nurses, emergency service technicians, or mental health professionals. Other professionals may include lawyers, environmental experts, building contractors and inspectors, or clergy. 

Unskilled volunteers

These volunteers don’t have disaster-specific skills but may have the time available for training. It’s important to include unskilled volunteers in your volunteer database to assist with less technical–yet essential–tasks, such as the distribution of supplies, sandbagging, or staffing a food kitchen.

Types of volunteer activities to assist with emergency efforts

Understanding a person’s skills and training can help you better designate your volunteers to specific roles. FEMA’s National Response Framework breaks down important volunteer roles that are essential to each phase of emergency preparedness and response: 

Administration Volunteers

  • Planning: assist with planning processes and delegation. 
  • Operational coordination: facilitate and initiate action, request additional support, identify resources. 
  • Operational communication: maintain communication between emergency response teams and affected populations. 
  • Public information and warning: the communications team keeps emergency personnel, media, and public informed. 

Health and Recovery Volunteers

  • Supply distribution: assist with the distribution of food, water, and other emergency supplies immediately following a disaster. 
  • Shelter: set up emergency shelters and temporary housing. 
  • Evacuees Support and Reunification: help to reunify families and account for missing persons. 
  • Counseling: offer to counsel to the bereaved. 

Transportation Volunteers

  • Critical transportation: assess the safety and status of transportation routes and infrastructure and identify alternate transportation solutions. 
  • Supply delivery: deliver supplies, equipment and services to affected communities. 

Safety Volunteers 

  • Search and rescue operations: arrive first on the scene and aid search and rescue efforts.
  • Environmental response: assess and mitigate health and safety hazards in the affected area. Support responders and citizens by providing safety guidance and resources. 
  • Fire management and suppression: trained volunteer firefighters who can coordinate fire suppression efforts. 
  • Location security: ensure on-site safety of individuals. 


How to Incorporate Volunteers Into an Emergency Plan

Recruiting and managing of disaster response volunteers may require alterations to your typical management method. It’s important to distinguish your disaster-ready volunteers from the rest of your day-to-day volunteer base to ensure you’re targeting the right volunteers and operating as efficiently as possible in the case of an emergency. Here are a few considerations for your disaster relief volunteer program: 

Emergency management software systems

The right software system can be one of the best disaster management and emergency response solutions that an organization can invest in. Management and communication technology can help organizations operate more efficiently in the face of an emergency or disaster.

An emergency management software system like ReDI helps with the most vital steps in emergency planning and management: 


  • Recruit volunteers separate from your non-emergency volunteer base, so that you can distinguish volunteers who want to volunteer in an emergency. 
  • Simplify your registration, interview, and screening processes. ReDI’s customizable registration allows you to provide a simple volunteer registration form while still collecting critical volunteer information.
  • Create job descriptions for volunteer roles to easily match volunteers with the appropriate roles.
  • Find and register volunteers with the specialized skills and licenses necessary for some disaster relief roles.  


  • Volunteer registration ensures your organization gathers all necessary information like:  
    • Contact Information
    • Availability
    • Skill sets 
    • Professional qualifications
    • Waivers
    • Licensure 
  • Ensure disaster and emergency volunteers have the information and training they need to prepare for emergency volunteerism. 
  • Assign roles and responsibilities based on skills, licenses, and qualifications before disaster strikes. 


  • Mobilize volunteers immediately following a disaster with mass texts and emails. 
  • Communicate critical information to all registered volunteers, reducing the risk of confusion and misinformation during a disaster. 
  • Distribute spontaneous and unaffiliated volunteers to community agencies and other disaster relief volunteer organizations.

Emergency Planning Training

In addition to having the right technology in place, you’ll want to make sure your organization and the appropriate staff are trained to be most effective in coordinating volunteers to assist disaster relief efforts. Government organizations like FEMA offer free emergency response and training solutions for volunteer coordinators and community volunteer programs wishing to establish disaster relief volunteer programs. 

Emergency Volunteer Training 

Emergency and disaster relief volunteer training programs can ensure your spontaneous and unaffiliated volunteers are prepared. Organizations like the Red Cross offer disaster training specifically for volunteers. Your organization should provide newly registered volunteers with need-to-know information, including chain of command outlines, communication methods in an emergency, meeting points, and required documents. We recommend you meet with your disaster-specific volunteers in-person to communicate preparedness plans, deliver basic emergency training, and delegate roles.


Overview of Disaster Preparedness Plans

Spontaneous disaster volunteer management works differently than your day-to-day volunteer coordination. Volunteers can opt to be “on call” for emergency and disaster relief following an event, in which case organizations like yours take action and mobilize disaster-ready volunteers. But spontaneous volunteerism requires preparedness; and the key to preparedness is an established plan. It may seem like the best way to respond to a disaster is to react quickly. But it’s just as important to be proactive in your planning. What does a preparedness plan entail? Here’s what you need to know: 

Stages of Disaster Management

There are four phases of Disaster Management: Preparedness, Response, Recovery, and Mitigation. Volunteers can be involved in all stages of the process: 

Preparedness: Disaster preparedness involves extensive planning before disaster strikes. Planning activities may include increasing the resources readily-available, like volunteers and training, to respond effectively. Preparedness occurs before a disaster or emergency. An example of preparedness may be receiving Red Cross disaster training.

Response: Response occurs promptly following a disaster. The commitment of spontaneous volunteers and other relief organizations is essential to effective and immediate relief. An example of a response activity may be setting up a shelter for evacuees. 

Recovery: According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, “short-term recovery returns vital life support systems to minimum operating standards, while long-term recovery returns an area to normal or near-normal conditions.” Specialized volunteers can assist in recovery. An example of recovery may be clearing out debris from a flooded home. 

Mitigation: Mitigation includes activities that prevent, eliminate, or reduce the effects of disaster. An example of mitigation may be building rebuilding a school to be more earthquake-resistant. 

What is a disaster preparedness plan? 

Volunteers are most valuable when trained, assigned, and supervised. A successful emergency and disaster preparedness plan begins with clear designation of roles and responsibilities when coordinating unaffiliated volunteers at the site of the disaster. 

How to prepare for a disaster:

Preparedness is about turning awareness of hazards into actions that help to both mitigate the effects of a disaster and improve a community’s ability to recover. The goal of your planning is to pass on your primary resource: information. Here is a brief overview of the steps your organization can take to build a prepared volunteer disaster response team: 

Assess hazards: Acquire a Hazards Analysis, a document that outlines potential location-specific disasters and natural risks. City officials–like Emergency Managers–should have a Hazards Analysis available. Consider other emergencies and hazards that community members and groups may experience. 

Predict services needed: What services might communities need following a disaster? After you have developed an understanding of the hazards, you’ll want to outline the short-term and long-term services you need from your volunteers. 

Identify resources: Consider the strengths and resources–like knowledge and equipment–that your organization already has. Does your organization: 

  • Build homes for communities in need?
  • Serve meals to large groups? 
  • Work with children?

There are over a million charitable organizations in the United States alone. Recovery efforts can be varied and far-reaching. Examples of recovery activities may include long-term housing recovery, serving meals to displaced individuals, or creating safe spaces for children. Volunteer centers can also help to distribute volunteers and supplies to specialized recovery organizations. The purpose of this step is to identify your organization’s strengths and determine how your available resources can be made most useful.

Assign staff roles and responsibilities: Assigning clear staff roles in the case of disaster will help reduce confusion and increase efficiency of communication and service delivery. Assign staff to organize and delegate volunteers, ensure adequate training, and communicate to the public. A Public Information Officer (PIO) and a spokesperson from your organization should also be identified. The PIO gathers information, ensures the accuracy of information received, coordinates messaging, and briefs the media. 

Initiate community relationships: Establishing your organization’s available resources and strengths in the face of disaster are just one component of preparedness plans. You’ll also need to establish your organization’s position among your network of equipped agencies. Multi-agency planning can be complex, but it’s a critical part of emergency and disaster planning. 

Assign spontaneous volunteers: Determine personnel needs, then clearly define your procedures for allocating volunteers to these needs. Assign roles based on the skills and abilities of volunteers. Your volunteers will have a variety of skills and abilities, but there are just as many roles to be filled when preparing and responding to disaster. 


Emergency, Disaster, and Natural Disaster Plans

Emergency Plan

An emergency is an event that results in a hazard and often requires the attention of police, fire, or medical response officials. Emergencies occur more frequently than disasters and tend to be manageable with the appropriate deployment of community resources. The emergency planning process typically involves preparing for immediate assistance to victims with the goal of reducing the likelihood of further or secondary damage.

Disaster Management Plan

Disasters are emergency events of greater magnitude that overwhelm a local community’s capacity to respond. In this case, neighboring communities and jurisdictions are often called upon to provide additional resources. In some cases, the event may require the intervention of the federal government when local and state aid are not enough.

A disaster plan often requires longer-term aid, as disasters tend to have more devastating consequences. In extreme cases, disasters can have a permanent impact on the lives of victims. Furthermore, disaster preparedness can entail advanced planning, and you may need to call upon the sustained efforts of affiliated, skilled, and professional volunteers.  

Natural Disaster Preparedness Plan

Natural disasters occur as a result of natural phenomena like hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, and floods. Natural disasters can be especially devastating to communities and often require long-term aid. There are government and nongovernment researchers, experts, and organizations that specialize in natural disaster management, relief, and mitigation. These specialists are often called upon following a disaster. Nonetheless, volunteer organizations are important in aiding recovery efforts, while assisting government organizations and emergency teams. 


Who Needs to Have a Disaster Management Plan? 

Government agencies have programs and teams in place to help with disaster relief efforts. They also have funding and resources available to support nongovernmental organizations in their emergency preparedness. The private-sector and nonprofit organizations are essential to in disaster and emergency planning. 

What role do nongovernmental organizations play in emergency planning? 

As a voluntary organization, your primary function is to coordinate volunteers. Coordination efforts may include: 

  • Recruiting and maintaining a volunteer roster.
  • Assessing skills.
  • Linking volunteers with other service providers. 
  • Coordinating volunteer services in an emergency. 

Emergency planning for churches, hospitals, schools, and local governments is an essential part of disaster relief and emergency response efforts. With proper planning and communication, any community volunteer agency can help communities recover from disaster. 


Steps for Establishing a Disaster Relief Volunteer Program: An Overview

  1. Undergo emergency planning and management training with an accredited organization like FEMA. 
  2. Create your disaster preparedness plan.
  3. Launch a volunteer disaster management platform like ReDI.
  4. Recruit disaster-specific volunteers to your disaster management system. 
  5. Collect and store essential information like contact details, skills, waivers, and licenses. 
  6. Supply new registrants with introductory materials, requirements, and chain of communication outlines. 
  7. Provide spontaneous disaster relief volunteers with a baseline information and training session. 
  8. Delegate and record volunteer roles. Create communication lists where necessary.
  9. Ensure all staff and skilled volunteers are up-to-date on required training and licensure, keeping in mind that some professional and technical licenses expire. 


In Conclusion

Having a robust disaster preparedness plan in place is critical to the recovery of communities following an emergency or disaster. Without the assistance of volunteers, government and specialized relief organizations could not operate at the capacity required to relieve and mitigate disasters. Spontaneous volunteers and volunteer organizations are essential to the recovery of our communities. But in order to be most effective, volunteer organizations must have the proper resources, equipment, and training in place. A disaster-specific volunteer management software system like ReDI can help to reduce response time, improve the effectiveness of volunteer coordination, and better respond to communities in need. 

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